The shapeless mould of the NHL’s best goalie

I’ll admit it from the get-go; I was never that enchanted with Boston Bruins’ goaltender Tim Thomas.

Starting from the mere fact he wears a Bruins’ jersey, all the way to the size of his gut, Thomas never endeared himself to this unfortunate Leafs fan who got burned by his impressive play time and time again during the season.

But maybe it was through his incredible road to the show, one which saw the 37-year-old linger in the AHL as well as overseas in Sweden and Finland before making it onto the Bruins’ radar and finally penciled in as their starting goalie in late 2007, that softened this writer’s jaded heart of the Michigan-raised netminder.

Or maybe it was because Thomas became a more and more integral part of perhaps the greatest and most entertaining NHL playoffs in recent memory, consistently winning with no defined style of play, getting involved in the aggressive stuff with the unfortunate Canucks’ forwards who dared cross his crease and obstruct his vision in the finals and defying his own age through the grind of a four-round playoffs in the quest for the hardest trophy to win in all of North American professional sports.

Whatever it was, the Conn Smythe trophy-winning playoff MVP, who allowed only eight goals in seven games against the Vancouver Canucks, seemed to get better as the playoffs entered its gruelling stages of the later rounds.

No small feat for a 37-year-old.

But with the inscribing of Thomas’ name on the chalice of Stanley and his admirable never-say-never ascension to greatness and hockey immortality, greater questions than these have arisen — ones that will shape the landscape of NHL goaltenders for years to come.

If someone (and this is no slight to Timmy) with Thomas’ physique, age and unorthodox playing style can win the pinnacle of hockey’s glory, who’s to say there’s a set definition of goaltending that can do the same?

Yes, Thomas’ lifelong perseverance and (despite his large frame) cat-like reflexes contributed to the Bruins’ win, but when the dust has settled, the $156,000 celebratory bar tab is paid and it comes time for general managers across the league to devise their “Stanley-Cup blueprint”, how do they decide who to throw in the cage?

In 2010, the Chicago Blackhawks shattered their 47-year Stanley Cup drought with a victory over the Philadelphia Flyers, riding sophomore surprise goalie Antti Niemi, the Finnish windy-city saviour who only wrestled the starting job away from Cristobal Huet as the playoffs began.

Niemi was cast off from Chicago just short weeks after winning it all, seemingly a disposable asset to the Hawks and a casualty of the salary cap era.

Opposing the Finn in the Flyers’ net were Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher, two career minor-leaguers who together were making $1.5 million between them — peanuts in professional hockey salaries.

Roberto Luongo, the Canadian Olympic gold-medalist who won his hardware in Vancouver under immense pressure in 2010 and lifted an entire country to euphoria, inexplicably unravelled in the 2011 Stanley Cup finals with his Vancouver Canucks.

The Toronto Maple Leafs, ever the polarizing force in the NHL, received elite goaltending in 2011 for the first time in years, and it came from the 23-year old minor league call-up, James Reimer, who either solidified his position as Leafs Nation’s starting masked hero for years to come, or tantalized the Leafs faithful as a flash in the pan.

Goaltenders have always been enigmas in themselves, usually the strong silent types who can elevate or decimate their team’s chances at glory all by themselves.

But a general manager who signs a goaltender to that big long-term contract might as well kiss those dice before he rolls them and throw that blueprint out the window.

It’s an unstable world for the stable anchors of the NHL.

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